Anyone or Only One
Sermon for 1st Unitarian Society of Denver by Rev. Mike Morran delivered on February 14, 2010
Once, there was a young woman who lived alone. She had a job and all the acceptable though unexciting things that a single woman in the early years of the 21st century would normally possess. However, there were two issues in her life that she just couldn't seem to resolve. The first was that her apartment had a cockroach problem. Every night she would come home, turn on the lights and the cockroaches would go scattering off. She tried everything; bug bombs, exterminators, traps, she cleaned meticulously, caulked all the cracks and corners, kept all her food in sealed containers and still, every night she would come home, turn on the lights and the cockroaches would scatter.
The other problem she had was that like many people, she really wanted a life partner for herself and so despite the difficulty, she was reluctantly doing some dating. The problem was that the people she dated were either losers or they were not interested in a long-term relationship. This caused her considerable frustration.
One night, she was driving home from yet another unsatisfactory date and she was thinking about her two problems, the cockroaches who wouldn't leave and the partners who wouldn't stay, when she suddenly sees a connection and gets an idea. She rushes home, walked into her apartment and just like always when she turned on the lights all the cockroaches went scattering. But this time she yells "Wait! And all the cockroaches stopped…! You don't have to go! Just make a commitment!" Then all the cockroaches scampered off and she never saw them again.
So, I don’t know why, but most of us at one time or another make an attempt at being in an intimate, long-term relationship. On this Valentines Day, it is the stages, pitfalls, and potentials of paired relationships that I’m going to explore with you, and I will warn you in advance that as I go, I’m going to drop a few of what I believe to be significant spiritual truths.
I also have a small disclaimer to share, I’m doing this sermon as a kind of valentine’s day present for my beloved spouse, who asked me to revisit a sermon I did way back in 2002. If you were around then, and you have an extraordinary memory, you might recognize some of what follows. And, then as now, I am borrowing from many sources. I believe this topic is of interest to just about everyone, and it doesn’t matter your age, gender, whether or not you are currently partnered, or the relative gender of the person you’re inclined to love.
There’s something funny that happens at the beginning of a paired relationship. The first stage is called Romance. It is generally characterized by a high level of emotional intensity and a corresponding drop-off in the ability to reason. Our culture calls it “falling in love,” and it feels WONDERFUL!
Studies have shown that people in this stage of a paired relationship undergo measurable bio-chemical changes, so to say that there is “good chemistry” with a particular person is more than a metaphor. People in Romance have been known to experience time differently. The time spent with the beloved person just vanishes like smoke, while the time spent away from the beloved person drags on forever. But generally this is OK because we know what to do. We write poetry, fantasize, buy cards and gifts, and even begin to clean up some of our less palatable habits in order to please our beloved.
It’s a huge mistake. Generally we believe we’ve fallen in love with another person. In fact what we’ve done is to fall in love with an idealized version of what we hope is going to bring us into the wholeness of empowered, connected love we were created for. This is why so many of us end up in relationships with people very different from ourselves. We are attracted to the mysteries represented in people whose way of being in the world is different from our own.
It may be that our attraction to our opposite, and this is a Jungian interpretation, is really an attraction to the mysteries within ourselves. Intuitively we feel that if we can understand or be close to these mysteries, we will be set free. This is an illusion because we are already free, we just don’t believe we are. That is one of those spiritual truths I said I was going to drop this morning. We are already free to be who and what we desire to be. We don’t need anyone else to make it happen for us. But in Romance, we begin to believe we have come across a magic shortcut to our own wholeness. All the parts of our beloved that we intuitively or unconsciously sense are undeveloped or un-experienced in our own beings, become a powerful attraction to that part of us which is forever seeking wholeness and reconciliation.
Now, we are not aware of this at the time, and even if we were, we probably wouldn’t do anything to spoil how good it all feels. But Romance doesn’t last. There’s variance of course, but Romance can last anywhere from a couple of weeks to about a year or so. In rare cases maybe two or three years, and if we’re very wise maybe only days. (With people I find rapidly and particularly attractive, I’ve been known to do Romance from start to finish, entirely in my head, in less than a minute.) Romance gets replaced with the next stage, which is disillusionment. We have all been there. It’s when we realize that our partner isn’t nearly as perfect as we had thought. We might feel like we’ve been duped, and we have! We’ve fooled ourselves into thinking all sorts of things about their good looks and charm, their willingness to share themselves, their relative absence of character flaws, and the hope that maybe for once this will be easy.
Wrong. We begin to discover that sometimes the person simply isn’t as available to us as we’d like them to be. Sometimes they shut us out of their lives completely. They have bad moods, say things we wish they wouldn’t, have friends who are from some other planet, and they will probably never read our favorite book. We begin to discover that we don’t always agree like we used to, and that some of those disagreements are over issues that are very important. We notice they have some repetitive habits that just drive us crazy!
Many relationships don’t survive this part. People become addicted to the excitement of Romance and will drop everything at this stage to go off searching for more. There is a myth alive in our culture that God or the universe has created just the right person for us, they’re out there somewhere if we can only find them. Wrong again. There are people lucky enough to find partners with whom they are remarkably compatible, but for most of us, there just is no such thing as a soul mate. Some people at the disillusionment stage realize they should get out. But, if you are someone who grew up in a household where you were criticized a lot, where unreasonable perfection was demanded, where emotional security was withheld, or where your self esteem was significantly eroded, you are going to find it very difficult to get yourself out of nearly any relationship. Even when they don’t work, even when the relationship is hurting you.
The truth is that the end of Romance is the healthiest thing that can happen because Romance is always based on illusions. It is even possible to know exactly just how long Romance will last. Romance will last as long as the other person is willing or able to live up to your expectations, or as long as you are able to maintain the illusion that they are, or even can. Here’s another one of those spiritual truths that I promised. If we, meaning you or I, can somehow manage to give up or get rid of our expectations of ourselves and others; if we can cease hoping against hope that someone else will or even can one day live up to or meet those expectations, you and I will live happier, deeper, broader and far, far easier lives than we’ve ever experienced before. This will come up again a little later.
When we get disillusioned, it seems there are only three things we can do. (1) We can give up, break up, and move on. (2) We can resign ourselves to being stuck with this person who is less than we’d hoped for, settling ourselves in for a long life of frustration, denial, and quiet desperation. Amazingly, some people truly believe that this is only what they deserve and I pray this is not you. Or, and this probably includes most of the couples in this room, fortunately, there are people who really want to make a relationship work, and so they move on to the next stage of a pair bonded relationship. Now you might be thinking, “Oh good. He’s going to get to the positive part.” Nope. Sorry. The next stage in long-term paired relationship is misery.
Misery comes on the heels of disillusionment and is characterized by blaming, feeling stuck, having fantasies about running away, and asking questions like; “Have I made a huge mistake?” “Am I with the wrong person?” “Is there a way out of this?” “What was I thinking?” “Is this as good as it will ever get?” I believe I can guarantee that if you are or have been in a paired relationship, you have asked some form of these questions and (don’t kid yourself) so has your partner. Misery is a complicated circumstance but can be simplified by this definition which I borrow from Rev. Roger Khurt. “Misery is the result of not knowing how to deal with significant conflict in a creative and productive way.” (Repeat)
My wife Tammy and I have developed a creative way of dealing with conflict over the years. When there is some tension evident in our relationship, and the tension begins to have a significant effect on how we’re getting along, we sit down together, carefully discuss the situation and figure out exactly what the issue is. Then we figure out which one of my behaviors or ways of being in the world is responsible for the tension, and discuss all the different ways that I’m going to work on correcting my behavior or my way of being in the world to resolve the tension.
“Misery is the result of not knowing how to deal with significant conflict in a creative and productive way.” You can not get away from conflict. Any two people in a relationship of mutuality will have conflict and over time, some of that conflict will be over issues of uncompromising importance. Typical areas of significant conflict include things like money, sex, how to raise children, how to use free-time, how much to eat, drink or smoke, how much to work, or attitudes about religion, morality or politics, to name just a few. This is also an area where we begin to see that these issues are not limited to romantic relationships. You may experience misery with people in your family of origin, your parents, your children, your boss, or even the otherwise wonderful people here in your church.
The trouble is that most of us don’t really know how to deal with conflict in a way both creative and productive. Instead, we tend to do one of three things. This is another lie we come to believe; we think that in any given situation, there are only a few options available to us. It’s not true, there are always an infinite number of options available to us all the time, but see if you recognize yourself in any of these. When conflict occurs we either give in, try to change the other person, or we withdraw, and I will to talk briefly about each one of these.
When we give in, we will successfully avoid the conflict. We will have avoided the conflict, but we will not have resolved the conflict and so in a long-term relationship it will come up again… and again, and again. A therapist might tell you this is part of your “chronic material.” When we give in, a couple of other things happen as well. We begin to lose a little of our self-respect. Worse, we begin to resent the other person because they have gotten their way while our needs have gone unmet. Another outcome of giving in is that the other person begins to lose respect for us as well. They might begin to feel guilty because of the unsatisfying and disrespectful way that they’ve won, and begin to blame and resent us for making them feel that way.
Another popular approach is to try to change the other person. We try this in any number of ways, but the whole idea is based on the mistaken belief that if we can change the other person so that they will agree with us, then our needs will be met in a win – win situation. But most of the ways we go about trying to change the other person are not very attractive. The most common way of trying to change the other person is by attacking them physically, emotionally, or verbally. The goal in attacking someone is to get them to give in order to meet our expectations and needs. It’s important to note that attacks, particularly verbal attacks can come in very subtle forms. Advising, humoring, ridiculing, sarcasm, analyzing, passive aggression, withholding information, even assuring or praising someone when it’s not appropriate or sincere can be a form of attack. Every one of these is a form of put-down or one-upspersonship. The goal is to make the other person feel guilty, unloving, unlovable, uninformed, dependent, selfish, ignorant or stupid, and if you can do that, you can much more easily control or manipulate them. You see why this stage is called misery.
Note that the need or desire to change the other person is based on that mistaken idea we touched on way back in the Romance stage. It is the faulty belief that the other person holds the key to our happiness; they’re responsible for it, or they’ve got it, and we’ve got to get it from them. But it doesn’t work. It can’t work. They don’t hold that key. They never did and they never will.
The third common way of handling conflict is withdrawal. This is more typical near the end of a relationship than at the beginning, but I’ve seen it in young and old. It is to deal with the conflict by refusing to deal with the conflict. Withdrawal can take many forms and doesn’t have to be obvious like walking out of the room or getting the silent treatment. People withdraw by working too much, by over-involvement in community activities, by taking on unusual amounts of volunteer work, by inviting a parade of friends and relatives to visit, by manufacturing crisis that demands their attention elsewhere, by drinking, drugs, television, sports, meditation, or even by having an affair in an attempt to have their needs met outside the relationship. Withdrawal is a tactic usually done by people who don’t have much hope.
Now for those brave and undaunted souls who have visited the dark valley of misery and still haven’t given up, there is hope. For those who would dare to confront, not their partner but themselves at this point, there is the possibility of reaching the fourth stage of pair bonded relationships which is awakening. Awakening is a shift in one’s perception of the world. Nothing else changes, but we begin to stop blaming or making others responsible for our feelings, thoughts, or decisions. In awakening, we understand, not just cognitively but deeply and even bodily that no one holds the key to our peace, contentment or happiness except the one person we really have control over, ourselves. If we do this, and to the extent that we do this, we will discover very quickly several things.
First, we will learn that we are not perfect. In fact, we’ll recognize that even though we’ve awakened for a month or even just a moment, we will sometimes slip back into misery. I heard recently about a couple that had been happily married for over sixty years. When they were asked about the secret of their success, one of them replied: “Every morning we each get up, walk over to the mirror and say, “You know, you’re not so easy to live with either!””
Second, we discover that with just a little bit of honesty and work, we can be a whole lot happier, more peaceful, and more creative than we’ve previously chosen to be. The difficulty here is that most of us, down in our heart of hearts, don’t really believe that we’ve chosen to be where we are, what we are, or how we feel and act. But the truth is that we have. No one else could have possibly orchestrated such a huge catastrophe in just this way. (And), once we fully grasp this, we will be holding one of the great keys to the mysteries of personal and spiritual fulfillment. In awakening we understand that forgiveness is a central part of any loving relationship and the first person we need to forgive is ourselves for all the terrible lies we’ve allowed ourselves to live with in the past. Then and only then, we begin to forgive those around us, which doesn’t mean we forget truly mean spirited acts or leave ourselves open to more of the same. But it does mean that we stop blaming our responses to those acts on the person who did them, and we stop wasting our precious energy feeling resentment about it. People describe awakening as a feeling of coming home to a sense of themselves deeper, fuller, and more grounded.
The last stage of paired relationship is a natural outgrowth of awakening. It is what Carl Rogers and some other modern writers have called unconditional love, what I prefer to call mature love. (In my experience there is very little in life that is unconditional.) Here’s another spiritual truth, and on this one I admit I’m relying more on what I’ve observed and read than on what I’ve directly experienced. Nonetheless, I believe that mature love is not something you create. It is not something you can have as a goal or plot a method to capture or bring forth from within your self. It is a viewpoint, a way of life, and it is largely a gift from beyond us. It is a way of being so grounded that you become a channel for doing the larger work of this thing we call life. It is always about giving more than about getting, and is recognized by the fact that it will never compromise the self-respect or dignity of yourself or those around you. It is opening oneself to a deeper knowledge of connectedness and the interdependent web of creation, and has much more to do with letting go of trying to control outcomes, letting go of old and habitual ways of thinking and being, and letting go of our mostly self-imposed limitations, than it does with acquiring anything. Symbolically it is the gesture of the opening hand as opposed to the closing fist. It is always expansive and free, rather than narrow or tightly defined.
Here is another of those great spiritual truths, one that I hope has run like an undercurrent through everything I’ve said. It is this: the insights, freedom and wholeness that come through awakening and mature love are available to all of us. They are available all the time, they are limitless, and they belong to us. If you believe that life is a gift, and I believe it profoundly, this is the way that is given to us to say “Thank you.” Don’t pass it up. To the degree that any of us can move in that direction, that is the degree to which the rest of us might feel permission to grow that way ourselves. The cockroaches of course are not real cockroaches. They are a metaphor for whatever it is that is standing in between you and the love, the spiritual growth, or the depth of intimacy that you long for. The point of the joke is that you can never really make those cockroaches go away, but you can change your relationship to them. In fact, in order to grow, you simply must.
This is my wish for all of us. Dig deep. Believe in yourself. Remember that to laugh at your self may be the purest forms of prayer. Trust in what your inner voice tells you. Your knowledge is deeper than you believe.